Discover more from Beijing to Canberra and Back
Strategic competition, the South China Sea, and the RBIO
Week of 7 to 13 June 2021
More programmatic specificity, please
Yossi Cohen, the recently departed head of Israel’s Mossad, on US China policy:
“If there is anybody here who knows what the U.S. wants from China, I would be happy to hear. I am not sure we fully understand if there is a coherent U.S. policy on China.”
This is a bracing assessment from an ex-intel chief from one of the closest US partners. To be sure, Cohen’s scepticism of the US articulation of strategic competition with China is likely partly a product of Israel’s strategic distance from the reach of the Chinese Party-state. Few Indo-Pacific countries could, for example, confidently assert, as Cohen did, that the Chinese government does “not conspire against us in any way.”
But regardless, Cohen’s comments raise an important question: Has the Biden administration done enough to explain the concrete goals of its China policy to US allies and partners? New and sweeping China-focussed legislation working its way through Congress includes voluminous detail on how the United States plans to pursue strategic competition with China and sustain US “global leadership.”
But much less detail is offered on what impact US strategic competition and global leadership might have on Beijing’s adversarial actions in cyberspace, the international trading regime, the South and East China seas or the Taiwan Strait, among many other examples. More worryingly still, even less detail is offered as to how precisely the overarching policies and goals of US-China competition and US leadership will in practice chasten Beijing’s behaviour in a range of arenas that matter for US allies and partners.
This is not to say that the United States’ emerging China policy won’t provide international benefits. But US allies and partners are still waiting for the Biden administration to articulate how its China policy will convincingly respond to the more worrying aspects of China’s international and domestic behaviour.
To put it more bluntly: For US allies and partners, strategic competition with China and the maintenance of US global leadership are not ends in and of themselves. Most optimistically, they are means to pursue more fundamental ends, such as security, peace, the maintenance of an open international trading regime, etc. So, if Washington wants more fulsome international support for its new China policy, there is much more work to be done to demonstrate the tangible international public goods that it will produce.
Big stick diplomacy
Per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) press conference read out from 11 June:
Bloomberg: Yesterday, a US naval vessel and an Australian naval vessel sailed together through the South China Sea. Do you have any comment on the action?
Wang Wenbin: We hope relevant countries can do more to promote regional peace and stability, rather than flex muscles.
Given the typical heat and invective associated with MFA mentions of Australia, this language is strikingly paired back. One might expect more than a perfunctory and flat one-sentence answer in response to a question about a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel transiting the South China Sea in coordination with the US Navy. Especially noting the status of the South China Sea among China’s “core interests.”
However, I suspect there’s a strong internal logic to Beijing’s muted response to transits such as this. Historically, the Australian government has been at pains to emphasise that the RAN does not transit within the sensitive 12nm approach to Chinese-controlled features in the South China Sea. There is no reason to think that this latest transit deviated from that practice.
As such, Beijing may well view such transits as indicating implicit deference to its expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), foreign vessels are entitled to transit 12nm territorial seas in a manner consistent with innocent passage.
The Australian government’s unwillingness to send RAN vessels within 12nm of Chinese-controlled features is therefore probably interpreted by China as an unwillingness to challenge its expansive maritime claims on the water (Australian diplomatic statements are, of course, another matter). From Beijing’s perspective, this unwillingness to challenge on the water is likely to be especially pleasing given that some artificial Chinese-controlled features in the South China Sea aren’t even entitled to a 12nm territorial sea under UNCLOS (Article 60).
Considering that such transits outside 12nm may be interpreted by Beijing as confirmation of Canberra’s cautious South China Sea policy, it’s no surprise that MFA holds back on the fiery rhetoric when the RAN is in the South China Sea. As I’ve previously argued, this highlights that there’s more Australia could be doing to uphold international law in the South China Sea.
Compare the pair
The Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 9 June 2021:
“Now, let me turn to the … areas where I believe liberal democracies should be stepping up with coordinated action. The first is supporting open societies, open economies and our rules-based order.”
“A framework for the future demands active and determined diplomacy and strong partnerships to help advance a secure and prosperous Indo–Pacific and strengthen the rules-based international order.”
I’m not inclined to over-interpret the Prime Minister’s remarks. But it’s hard not to notice the apparent evolution in language from the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper’s generally pragmatic focus on “a rules-based order” to the more values-driven emphasis on “open societies, open economies and our rules-based order.”
It’s too early to tell whether this signals a broader shift towards more of an ideological tinge to Australia’s approach to the international system, global governance, and great power competition. And as we’ve seen previously, the Prime Minister is not averse to striking rhetorical flourishes that probably don’t signify policy change. But the shift in both Washington and Beijing towards a more ideologically infused approach to international politics would suggest that there’s every chance this movement in language will stick.
Life imitates art
Zhang Xudong writing in ‘Avoiding a lose-lose situation: the immediate priority for China-Australia relations’:
“One political joke is that Australia spends a lot of money each year on defence to secure its maritime trade routes, with which it trades with its most important trading partner, that is, China. But the source of the threat is also China! How ironic!”
It’s reassuring to know that Chinese academics and intellectuals also enjoy Utopia. More seriously, kudos to China Neican for the translation. Even if one (quite understandably) objects strenuously to Zhang’s assessments, gaining a better sense of a Chinese analyst’s view of the Australia-China relationship is a useful exercise.
As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections are very much appreciated.